Bob Lefsetz is a music business insider who publishes some great commentary. Recently, the Houdini exhibit featured in the current Genii prompted him to write what follows. With his permission, here it is:
It takes years to make it.
Wannabes believe these years are about getting recognized, but they're really about honing your craft, becoming so good that people do recognize you.
Harry Houdini was a tireless self-promoter. A self-created person who needed to make it, for the fame, the money and the adulation. Isn't it interesting that our entertainment heroes always come from the lower classes, when failure is not an option, you put all your effort into succeeding. You invent a past and a future. Because you've got nothing to stand on, and you're sick of being broke in the ditch by the side of the highway.
What do I know about Harry Houdini? The movie? I'm surprised Hollywood hasn't remade that yet. But you know if they do it'll be completely different, the resulting film will be all about imagery, darkness, visual effects, when in the era of the Tony Curtis biopic it was all about story. Isn't that why movies are in the crapper, their lack of story? Pay cable does story better than movies, despite the advent of HD the screen is still small and what translates most is the emotional tension, the narrative, key to any great entertainment success. Leave out the story and you've got fleeting success at best. That's one of the problems with today's insta-successes, there's no backstory.
Why did I read Robert Gottlieb's Harry Houdini story in "The New York Review Of Books"? Why do I read "The New York Review Of Books"?
On an airplane recently, I read "The Economist". My curiosity was piqued by their cover story, the ever-growing gap between rich and poor. And the articles evidenced intelligence, but as I read them I'd find myself speeding up, because my eyes were glazing over. After that, I picked up "The New Yorker", an issue whose articles didn't intrigue me by topic, but which riveted me as I delved in. You see it was the style. It's how you tell a story that's important. Sure, a great story can be told by anyone. But a great book survives time because of how it's written. And the quality of writing in "The New York Review Of Books" is far beyond that of the hit and run publications. It's written for readers, in an era where all entertainment is dumbed down to the lowest common denominator. Not that I read every article. Hell, there are issues where I don't read a one. But when I get hooked, I end up satisfied, because there's a thorough treatment of the subject presented in
a thorough way. This is what killed "Rolling Stone", when they imitated the hit and run style of the circulation number inflated "Blender". All this hogwash about short attention spans is b.s. We've got all the time in the world for what interests us. It's just that we don't care about much of what you're purveying.
"In 1891, now seventeen, he formed a magic act called the Brothers Houdini, first with a friend, later with his brother Dash, eventually with his wife, Bess, and began a half-dozen years of exhausting, uncertain, meagerly paid work in dime museums and traveling-circus sideshows. But he was watching and learning from everyone..."
Sounds like a band, right?
In the old days, before the Internet could make everyone famous overnight, our successful artists had a backstory. They'd played with this person and that, some who'd also gone on to become famous, many who'd gone straight after tiring of the grind or finding themselves just not good enough. Pete Best was not the best, he got ousted from the Beatles just before they broke. But Tom Petty reunited with his old buddies in Mudcrutch decades later. Who did Willow Smith come up with? You see we've got the fame part down, but there's no substitute for growing up, getting knocked around, learning the ropes.
And what was Harry Houdini doing? Learning how to perform.
The greats were not only musicians, but incredible showmen. Have you seen David Bowie? Bob Ezrin made incredible records with Alice Cooper, but when you went to see him there was a show so out there, so creative that you had to tell everyone you knew about it, and drag them the next time Alice came to town.
And how about Hendrix? He sure could play. But that didn't prevent him from employing his teeth, lighting his guitar on fire. And it's not simply coming up with these stunts, it's about practicing them over years. Speak with a comedian. He always bombs early in his career. He has to learn how to feed off of the audience. Not only what lines work, but when to shut up, when to wrinkle his eyebrows. This is very hard to do when your show is on hard drive. A great show is an interaction between performer and audience. Movies are two-dimensional, live theatre and music positively breathe!
And Houdini gave it away for free!
"The leaps into rivers and canals, the danglings from tall buildings, were consummate coups of free publicity. A New York reporter wrote that one of these stunts was 'the biggest free show ever seen in New York or anywhere else.' As many as 100,000 spectators lined the docks and gaped from windows."
You've got to earn this attention. Sure, you can get on MTV and VH1 and be famous for a minute, everybody knows your name, but I can't remember the name of that band that wrote their album in the bubble, and what about those acts in "Bands On The Run"? That's the MTV model. Instant fame. A rocket to the moon. But those rockets very quickly fall back to earth. And MTV doesn't care about music, do you think "The Jersey Shore" is about music?
And Houdini was demanding and weird and quirky. Personalities like this can't be lawyers, can't be bankers, but they excel as performers. Upper middle class denizens are always worried about what their peers think. Whereas the lower classes don't give a [censored], they just want to come up from the depths, they'll do whatever it takes to make it.
And once Houdini made it, he focused on unmasking mediums. You know, those people who say they can communicate with the dead. When a performer makes it today, he signs up with the Fortune 500. He stops standing for anything, for fear of offending someone. And this is just about when he stops making vital music. If you're not willing to risk everything to follow your passion, we're just not interested.
Houdini hit a hundred years ago. But his flame burned so bright that I'm reading an article about him a century later. That's a star.
"The Secrets Of Houdini": http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archive ... s-houdini/
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